The path to excellence in professional sport is long and ever-changing. There are ups and downs, no matter the level, a journey every athlete expects. Making the downward spiral as short as possible is always the aim.
For the top stars, falling from rarefied heights is like recovering from a lengthy injury – it’s all about one step at a time. Even though the competition is still rising to the occasion, the key is to focus on yourself, take some positives as the weeks unfolds, and keep rebuilding.
For Jordan Spieth, trying to live up to the expectations of what has already been achieved is a difficult proposition.
It’s coming up to three years since the American lifted the Claret Jug at Royal Birkdale. His third major in two years. Sitting at number one in the world, he was a man on the cusp of greatness.
Many expected the Texan to be at the sharp end of the world rankings for the next decade, the man destined to win double-digit majors over the course of his career.
He was on a career trajectory like Phil Mickelson, or maybe even Tiger Woods, because of how frequently he won at a tender age. However, after a remarkable start to his career, he has struggled with his game since the 2017 Open, failing to win and rarely contending. He is like a different player.
Since the start of the 2018 season, he has posted just 11 top-10 finishes in 54 starts and has fallen to 56th in the world rankings. After ranking 39th on the PGA Tour in strokes-gained putting – his key strength – three years ago, Spieth dropped nearly 100 spots to 136th. He was ninth in that category in 2015.
Frustration has, at times, overcome him in his quest to return to the pinnacle of his game. When things done so naturally before are becoming more difficult, doubts naturally emerge.
A mental break away from the game over the last three months has no doubt benefited Spieth. That, coupled with the PGA Tour resuming its season last week at a course he has excelled at in the past, could be a formula for future success.
The Dallas native showed flashes of his old magic at the Colonial over the weekend, finishing in a tie for 10th, four shots behind eventual winner Daniel Berger.
His first round 65 was impressive, a step in the right direction. He made eight birdies, including three in a row on Friday, to card another sizzling 65 to reach 10-under.
He showed every shot during Saturday’s third round, which he entered one-stroke behind the leader and left a shot behind another leader after a two-under 68.
It was his final round that let him down though. He struck four birdies and five bogeys to sign off for a one-over 71. However, there were enough positives over the four days to complement his encouraging top-10 finish.
His mid-to-long range putting was strong and his driving was sharp – aside from one that blew out of bounds due to the wind. On the other hand, his normally clean wedge play was a bit rusty, but that is something which can be ironed out with practice. He didn’t have all the weapons in his armoury, yet that performance will give him confidence and belief.
Sometimes all it takes is one day, one round, one tournament to kick start something special again. There’s no doubt he is going to win again multiple times over the coming years. It’s just all about finding the rhythm again.
During the Covid-19 lay-off, he viewed that first month as an off-season, continuing to practice with a light load. Only in the last four weeks, he has ramped up his on-course preparations, analysing his recent performances with swing coach Cameron McCormick.
Creating these little habits to get back on track is what he has put emphasis on over the last few weeks. Working on his swing without the usual distractions and pressures of tournament golf has paid dividends.
He admitted that overthinking had been his biggest nemesis over the last two years and said he relished using the tour’s hiatus to free his mind of swing mechanics.
As the month’s progress, if Spieth can improve his driving accuracy and tighten up his putting, key to his three major triumphs, then we are going to see one of the finest players of his generation return to his sterling best.
Spieth is bound to be a consistent presence at the top of the leaderboard again. Everyone wants to see him there. We all want to see the gifted players contending each week. This is a man who boasts 14 worldwide wins. He only turns 27 next month. So young.
Before golf’s long pause, he made seven of eight cuts this season and recorded two top-10s. Back at Harbour Town this weekend, he will be hoping to improve on his 11th place finish from his last RBC Heritage appearance in 2015.
After reaching such lofty heights, Spieth will be eager to touch those boundaries again. One tournament and it could slowly come together again. He is still young, has plenty of class and countless days ahead to contend. It’s just a matter of rediscovering that magic consistently again.
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